Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights

By Mark Goodale | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
Encountering Relativism
The Philosophy, Politics, and Power of a Dilemma

THERE IS A SPECTER haunting Europe these days, but the specter is not anything as passé as communism. As it turns out, what continues to cause so much distress, at least in certain circles, is the phantom of relativism. On the day before he was elected pope, Benedict XVI (the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) identified the key challenge facing the Catholic Church as the “dictatorship of relativism” (Dionne 2005). This was not the first time the new pope had rallied the faithful to erect barriers against relativism: as early as 1996, for example, he had described it as the “central problem for faith today” (Ratzinger 1996). The denial of absolute truth is supposedly a main tenet of relativism, and this, according to Benedict, does not set people free—it binds them in invisible shackles. Having too many moral or epistemological or theological choices, without any guiding framework for choosing definitively between them, sets up a kind of tyranny, according to the new leader of the world's one billion Catholics.

But the renewed attack on relativism has not come only from what are, after all, the expected quarters. (Any world religion based on one Truth would tend to find the ambiguities of relativism, regardless of controversies over definition or meaning, to be anathema.) The idea and its perceived consequences have also suffered a backlash from the other flank, from neo-Enlightenment thinkers committed to the intellectual, political, and social frameworks associated with a different (though isomorphic) kind of Truth, in this case one derived from universal rationality and human dignity and not divine justice.

In his short book/long essay The Defeat of the Mind (1995), the French social thinker and intellectual provocateur Alain Finkielkraut engages in a

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